Taboos regulate our sexual conduct, race relations, political institutions, and economic mechanisms - virtually every realm of our life. According to 2002 edition of "Encyclopedia Britannica", taboos are "the prohibition of an action or use of an object based on ritualistic distinctions of them either as being sacred and consecrated or as being dangerous, unclean, and accursed".
Jews are instructed to ritually cleanse themselves after having been in contact with a Torah scroll - or a corpse. This association of sacred with accursed and holy with depraved is key to guilt and sense of danger which accompany violation of a taboo.
In Polynesia, where term originated, says Britannica, "taboos could include prohibitions on fishing or picking fruit at certain seasons; food taboos that restrict diet of pregnant women; prohibitions on talking to or touching chiefs or members of other high social classes; taboos on walking or traveling in certain areas, such as forests; and various taboos that function during important life events such as birth, marriage, and death".
Political correctness in all its manifestations – in academe, media, and in politics - is a particularly pernicious kind of taboo enforcement. It entails an all-pervasive self-censorship coupled with social sanctions. Consider treatment of right to life, incest, suicide, and race.
In contemporary thought, incest is invariably associated with child abuse and its horrific, long-lasting, and often irreversible consequences. But incest is far from being clear-cut or monolithic issue that millennia of taboo imply. Incest with minors is a private - and particularly egregious - case of pedophilia or statutory rape. It should be dealt with forcefully. But incest covers much more besides these criminal acts.
Incest is ethical and legal prohibition to have sex with a related person or to marry him or her - even if people involved are consenting and fully informed adults. Contrary to popular mythology, banning incest has little to do with fear of genetic diseases. Even genetically unrelated parties (a stepfather and a stepdaughter, for example) can commit incest.
Incest is also forbidden between fictive kin or classificatory kin (that belong to same matriline or patriline). In certain societies (such as certain Native American tribes and Chinese) it is sufficient to carry same family name (i.e., to belong to same clan) to render a relationship incestuous. Clearly, in these instances, eugenic considerations have little to do with incest.
Moreover, use of contraceptives means that incest does not need to result in pregnancy and transmission of genetic material. Inbreeding (endogamous) or straightforward incest is norm in many life forms, even among primates (e.g., chimpanzees). It was also quite common until recently in certain human societies - Hindus, for instance, or many Native American tribes, and royal families everywhere. In Ptolemaic dynasty, blood relatives married routinely. Cleopatra’s first husband was her 13 year old brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Nor is taboo universal. In some societies, incest is mandatory or prohibited, according to one's social class (Bali). In others, Royal House started a tradition of incestuous marriages, later emulated by lower classes (Ancient Egypt). The list is long and it serves to demonstrate diversity of attitudes towards this most universal practice.
The more primitive and aggressive society, more strict and elaborate set of incest prohibitions and fiercer penalties for their violation. The reason may be economic. Incest interferes with rigid algorithms of inheritance in conditions of extreme scarcity (for instance, of land and water) and consequently leads to survival-threatening internecine disputes. Most of humanity is still subject to such a predicament.
Freud said that incest provokes horror because it touches upon our forbidden, ambivalent sexual cravings and aggression towards members of our close family. Westermark held that "familiarity breeds repulsion" and that incest taboo - rather than counter inbred instincts - simply reflects emotional reality. Both ignored fact that incest taboo is learned - not inherent.
We can easily imagine a society where incest is extolled, taught, and practiced - and out-breeding is regarded with horror and revulsion. The incestuous marriages among members of royal households of Europe were intended to preserve familial property and expand clan's territory. They were normative, not aberrant. Marrying an outsider was considered abhorrent.
Self-sacrifice, avoidable martyrdom, engaging in life risking activities, refusal to prolong one's life through medical treatment, euthanasia, overdosing, and self-destruction that is result of coercion - are all closely related to suicide. They all involve a deliberately self-inflicted death.